There is a moment in the first half of this stage adaptation of Dickens’ French Revolution story, on the night I’m there to see it, when something goes wrong: the mechanism that opens the side of one of three shipping containers forming the set becomes jammed, forcing the show to pause while the crew gets it fixed. With no curtain or blackout available to maintain the illusion, there is nothing for it but to tell the audience exactly what is going on.
Counterintuitively, this brings something wonderful to the show, for two reasons. Firstly, it’s a reminder that while this might not be heart surgery, the company members are still putting themselves on the line for our enjoyment. And secondly, the pause makes what is revealed all the more enjoyably grotesque: the character of the villainous French aristocrat Monseigneur, dressed in garish gold tailcoat, writhing around to throbbing discopop. It’s one of many moments of visual brilliance from Regent’s Park’s artistic director Timothy Sheader and designer Fly Davis that mean this production never dips below stimulating.
When Dickens wrote the novel in 1859, he was drawing parallels between the injustices of pre-revolutionary France and those of his own time. Sheader and Matthew Dunster, who wrote the script, chose to adapt A Tale Of Two Cities on the basis of a belief that its themes – rampant inequality and mass displacement of people – resonate just as strongly today. They do and they don’t; while some of the parallels come across as forced, it’s still interesting to juggle the two settings together in the mind.
This idea means that the world on stage exists outside of time: the main cast wear the clothes of the period, while the ordinary people forming the backdrop of the play’s universe look like those you might have seen on the streets of London this morning, and the corner shop is stocked with Evian and Kronenbourg. A sequence in which a line of downtrodden people traipse across the stage brings to mind UKIP’s infamous “breaking point” poster, with which Nigel Farage shamelessly whipped up anti-immigrant sentiment in the run-up to the Brexit referendum.
The original script, meanwhile, allows this production to do something much more interesting than a typical modern-day staging of Shakespeare: the actual language used by the protagonists and proletariat seems to put them on two different planes, intersecting but miles apart. Near the end, as the central characters are fleeing the brutality of revolutionary France for the safety of Britain, they come up against the cold bureaucracy of the present day UK Border Force, hammering home the total absence of empathy that exists in Theresa May’s immigration regime. Again, it’s debatable whether the parallel works, but the moment fits into the play’s narrative with great effect.
Among an incredibly diverse cast, the casting of Jude Owusu as Charles Darnay, and Nicholas Karimi as Sydney Carton, who have different colour skin, makes a bold point. In an early scene, when Darnay is on trial in England for alleged spying, Sydney Carton gets him off the hook by pointing out that the two characters look alike, meaning witnesses could not be sure it was Darnay they saw. This similarity in appearance proves crucial for how events unfold later in the story. “Do they look alike?”, the jury on stage, and the audience, is asked. In order to accept that yes, they do, Sheader’s production asks the audience to disregard any conditioning that says there is something fundamentally different in their appearance. It involves a moment of conscious thought that surely would not have been the case if the two had actors had had the same skin colour.
This production doesn’t recreate the book, but chooses to do something rather different. It’s raucous, colourful and exhilarating, and while there’s a lot of plot to gallop through in three hours, meaning the cast have little opportunity to show off their talents, the closing sequences are moving. The historical parallels may be ambitious, but I think Dickens would have approved. He’d have recognised that we, the people of 2017, are living in the best of times and the blurst of times.
A Tale Of Two Cities is at Regent’s Park Open Air Theatre until August 5th. For more details, click here.